L. Gregory Jones: How should leaders respond to the powerful forces shaping our world?

fault line

A fracture in the earth in the Flaming Gorge area of Utah.  Bigstock / Ironrodart

Globalization, technology and financialization are interacting to rapidly change our world, creating bewilderment and disorientation. In such a time, we need new and renewed institutions that are creative and vibrant to lead us through the turbulence, writes the theologian.

“Why are you talking so much about these ‘unprecedented’ changes, turbulence and ‘tumultuous times’? Doesn’t every generation think they are facing such challenges? What’s so different about us and our time?”

These questions came in the midst of a daylong workshop in which I was articulating why leaders seem deeply bewildered and disoriented by our present circumstances and the challenges of contemporary leadership. The challenges seem complex and wicked, not just complicated or hard. Business leaders have begun to describe our time as VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), and to describe leadership as learning to “navigate in a fog.”

How might we account for the volatility, the complexity, the fog? Could identifying the sources of the turbulence help empower us to make better progress in offering solutions? That was where I was headed in my comments.

The particular participant who raised questions about my analysis was clearly frustrated -- and he had a point. There is an all-too-human tendency to romanticize the stability of the past and thus exaggerate the complexities of the present and the challenges of the future. The participant’s observation that every era has to address change was a valid one that we neglect at our peril. Also valid was his sense that “turbulence” is a matter of perspective, and that varieties of events cause turbulence and make leadership challenging in any era.

My rhetoric had been a bit hyperbolic, making his point an important corrective, or at least caution. Change is inevitable, and it is always disorienting. And surely our age isn’t the first to discover turbulence. Indeed, Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn’s new book, “Forged in Crisis,” a profile of five exemplary leaders over the past two centuries (Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rachel Carson), has as its subtitle “The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times.”

Yet there are risks in minimizing the disorientation and turbulence. There are times when tectonic plates shift more substantially than at others, and eras when the changes and challenges are more profound than in others.

We live in such an era. And because we do, believing that this is just another set of changes and challenges can lead to misdiagnoses that are as problematic as ignoring the turbulence altogether. We need diagnoses that take us to the heart of our bewilderment -- at least, as close as possible -- so that our prognoses and strategies for dealing with it will be as fruitful as possible.

My journey toward the heart of our bewilderment began as I considered the deep trends that we are facing and the need to focus on human flourishing. It continued as I wrestled with various forces of disruption and their impact on organizations, and as I sought to understand the rise of networks and the importance of practiced “intuition” as a “seventh sense.”

But what may take us closest to the heart of our bewilderment, I believe, are three underlying forces that are shaping our world, as laid out in a recent essay by Colm Kelly and Blair Sheppard. Those three forces -- globalization, technology and financialization -- are not entirely new. Indeed, other eras have seen a great deal of interaction across cultures, and technologies have been developing as long as there have been human beings and cultures.

What is most genuinely new are the ways in which the three forces are interacting with one another, and the accelerated pace of those interactions. The new interactions, together with the accelerated pace, are creating new predicaments that are bewildering and disorienting. Those predicaments are especially urgent to address, because their cumulative impact has been shifting. For many years, people have focused on the ways the impact has benefited society, especially in social mobility and lifting people out of poverty. But in recent decades, the impact has created challenges that are increasingly problematic and even ominous.

Sheppard identifies the challenges through an acronym of ADAPT:

  • Asymmetry: Increasing wealth disparity and the erosion of the middle class
  • Disruption: Disruption of business models and blurring of industry
  • Age: Demographic pressure on business, social institutions and economies
  • Populism: Breakdown in global consensus and increasing nationalism
  • Trust: Declining trust in institutions and consequences of technology

There is no single cause that leads to these challenges, and no single way to navigate the forces of globalization, technology and financialization. The forces magnify some issues, intensify others and create new ones. In this light, diagnoses such as historian Niall Ferguson’s “The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die” both explain and obscure the challenges we need to address.

Many activists think that globalization, technology and financialization should be simply opposed or resisted. But that is not likely to be effective, as the forces are simply too strong and not easily isolated.

What can we do constructively? Even if we want to avoid counterproductive reactions, we cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand, pretending that the turbulence will pass. Nor can we afford to oversimplify the problems or attempt to tackle them one at a time.

Rather, we need to cultivate networks that will enable us not only to diagnose the complexities of the forces and the challenges we face but also to develop strategies that can build on the positive effects of the forces while minimizing the negative. Central to this work will be new and renewed institutions that are creative and vibrant enough to form people with the mindsets, skills and character to lead us through the turbulence.

The stakes are high, the challenges are daunting and urgent, and the opportunities potentially transformational. There is no time to waste, but neither can we settle for mere technical fixes. We need to adapt, and to cultivate institutions and leadership in a new key.